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Managing internal communication: an organizational case study
Managing internal communication
Paul J.A. Robson and Dennis Tourish Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK
Abstract Purpose – The primary objective of this article is to explore what senior managers think they should be doing to improve communication in their organization, what they actually do in communication terms, and the high work load which senior managers undertake. Design/methodology/approach – This understanding is advanced by using the results of a communication audit which was conducted in a major European health-care organization (HCO) undergoing significant internal re-organization. A communication audit can be defined as: “a comprehensive and thorough study of communication philosophy, concepts, structure, flow and practice within an organisation”. It assists managers by “providing an objective picture of what is happening compared with what senior executives think (or have been told) is happening”. Findings – First, senior managers who over-work are even less likely to have the time for reflection, followed by behaviour change. Second, the absence of adequate upward communication may blind managers to the full nature of their problems, which in turn guides the search for solutions. Research limitations/implications – Clearly there is a need to examine other types of organizations to establish the universality of the communication issues and problems that were found in a large HCO in Europe, using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Practical implications – The data suggest that attempting to cover up communication weaknesses by managers working even longer hours only has the effect of further disempowering people, and so accentuating rather than alleviating the underlying difficulty. Originality/value – The article has value to fellow academics and managers in practice and contributes to the debate on upward communication and the workload of managers. Keywords Corporate communications, Overwork, Health services Paper type Research paper
Introduction Beneficial effects of communication There is now a substantial literature that suggests that internal communications helps to improve the likelihood of an organisation being successful. Hanson’s (1986) research looked at the profitability of 40 major companies over a five-year period. His results indicated that when predicting profitability of an organisation the presence of good interpersonal relationships between managers and staff was three times more powerful than the four next most powerful variables, combined-market share, capital intensity, firm size and sales growth rate. Clampitt and Downs (1993) undertook a wide review of the evidence on the effects on organisations of communication. They concluded that the benefits obtained from quality communications included improved productivity, a reduction in absenteeism, increased levels of innovation, a reduction in the number of strikes, higher quality of services and products, and a reduction in costs. Kanter (1988) argued that higher levels of innovation can be achieved by good communication within and between organisations and sections of organisations. More
Corporate Communications: An International Journal Vol. 10 No. 3, 2005 pp. 213-222 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 1356-3289 DOI 10.1108/13563280510614474
specifically, the thrust of Kanter’s (1988) conclusion is that contact between as many levels in an organisation as possible is important to achieving enthusiastic, widespread involvement in the achievement of organisational goals and the creation of a supportive climate for innovation. Barriers to effective practice A wealth of empirical material has demonstrated a frequent gulf between how much information people need to do their jobs and what they receive, problems with the sources from which they receive it, the channels through which it is transmitted and how much information is in turn sent by most organisational members (Tourish and Hargie, 1998, and various contributors to Hargie and Tourish, 2000). In addition, many managers are reluctant to investigate their communication practices by implementing communication audits. Such resistance to diagnosis might well be itself a contributory factor towards communication problems – if organisations lack data on how well they are performing it becomes correspondingly harder to develop appropriate action plans. Among the problems identified that prevent organisations implementing best communication practice are the following: A widespread conviction that the managerial agenda is already over-crowded. Managers then become reluctant to burden it further with issues that are widely regarded as too intangible to be measured, let alone transformed (Tourish, 1998). A recognition that communication might be poor in many organisations, combined with the view that the manager’s own organisation will be an exception. In reality, most managers are poor at evaluating their effectiveness as communicators (Quirke, 1996). Furthermore, most people rate themselves as more intelligent, skilled, ethical, honest, persistent, original, friendly, reliable, attractive, fair-minded and even better drivers than others (Myers, 1996). It is therefore hardly surprising that one national survey in the USA found 60 per cent of top management respondents saying they communicated “frequently” with their employees, while only 30 per cent of non-management staff agreed (Crampton et al., 1998). Thus, it may be that managers’ low level of awareness of their communication climate, combined with a reluctance to investigate it, become key obstacles to the development of positive communications policies. This article seeks to explore these issues, and identify other factors that may prevent the implementation of good practice. Data gathering and methodology Based on the above literature review, a number of research questions were developed as follows. Research questions The previous section has outlined the benefits of communication within organizations. It could therefore be expected that managers would routinely adopt policies designed to ensure that all staff could transmit an appropriate amount of information to do their jobs effectively. Should this positive assumption prove unwarranted, it was our intention to explore what remedies most people would have in mind. Arguably staff are well placed to consider solutions to communication problems within their own organization. In addition, such data would help indicate whether they had impossible
expectations in terms of what could be done, or whether relatively simple measures on basic communication issues would be likely to yield substantial improvements in communication climate. Overall, this has significant implications for assessing the nature of organisation communication and leads to our research questions.
Managing internal communication
RQ1. Is communication functioning at an optimum level in the healthcare organization (HCO), or is there a gap between practice and what is needed?
A second question was concerned with the workloads of senior managers. Excessive amounts of hard work can be detrimental to the people engaged in such policies and can also have detrimental effects more widely upon the organization. In particular, excessive work could result in poorer decision making by senior managers, and an inability to empower other members of the organization with the necessary information to do their jobs effectively (Bowen and Lawler, 1992). Our second research question is specified as: RQ2. What is the perception of the workload of the senior level of management by other levels of the organisation, and what is the impact of their workload on communication climate? Organizational context The data upon which this article was written are derived from a communication audit of a major European HCO which was undergoing significant internal re-organisation. The HCO employs 3,500 staff, has a budget of over 300 million Euros per annum, and offers a wide range of services to a population of 350,000 people dispersed across a large geographical area. The HCO is composed of seven main care groups (including acute illness, primary care and mental health), in four main geographical areas. Within each group, a general manager (GM), male, had been appointed in the previous 18 months, charged with the task of co-ordinating activities across the care groups within the locality. Thus, the essential point of the management structure was to be that clinical governance responsibilities lay with the care group director across all locations, ensuring consistent patterns of care. However, within each location service co-ordination would be the responsibility of general managers, who were accountable to the senior management team. This was an extraordinarily small body, composed only of the CEO and the seven care group directors. A communication audit was carried out in the HCO. As preparation for this audit, and in line with normal procedure (Hargie et al., 2002) a meeting had been held between the audit team and the HCO’s senior management team (SMT). At this meeting there was a review of the general principles of communication audits; the nature of a communications strategy, and the benefits that can be obtained from implementing it; and the likely timescale for the implementation of a communication audit within the organisation. Importantly from the standpoint of this project, the main intention here was to work through the basics of an effective communication strategy, the need for an adequate flow of information on key corporate issues and to explore the attitude of the SMT to these issues. All members of the team were keen to discuss these issues; all committed to the principles of effective communication; all agreed that a steady flow of good quality information on key issues was a vital prerequisite to effective organisational functioning.
Results Results from focus groups and interviews A total of six focus groups, attended by 23 people, and nine interviews were conducted. Participants in the focus groups and interviewees were all probed for their attitudes towards: (1) internal communication in general; (2) their understanding of, and support for, new organisational structures; and (3) how well they grasped the vision of the top management team. Data from the interviews and focus groups were content-analysed for main themes. Consistent with much current practice, both focus groups and interviews were conducted in the light of a priori thematizing (Lee, 1999), in which reference is made to existing theory, literature and the researcher’s insights. Thus, questions were constructed based on the project research questions. Comments from respondents were then content analysed around the main themes, as determined by frequency counts of the main comments received. Content analysis involved following protocols recommended by Clampitt (2000), in which: One researcher read all the responses to a given question and identified recurring themes. Responses relating to these issues were initially divided into positive and negative categories. Further sub-divisions then emerged, depending on whether the experiences related to middle or senior managers, co-workers, channels of communication, problems with implementation, etc. A second researcher, unaware of the classification system employed by the first researcher, repeated these steps. Results were then compared and discussion ensued until an agreed classification system emerged. The process was repeated twice, until agreement on coding that covered over 90 per cent of the responses was obtained. From this, a number of key themes consistently emerged, ranging across: (1) the need for more communication; (2) concern at senior management workloads, on the part of senior managers themselves, and by people throughout the organisation; and (3) people’s willingness to be involved in the decision-making process, combined with a feeling that this had become impossible. Clearly, there was a degree of overlap between these areas. For example, some people addressed the issue of the new structures from the standpoint of their impact on decision making and levels of participation. But separating out these themes enabled us to focus more sharply on the extent to which people felt that they grasped management’s vision for the future of the organisation. However, in the main, the categories identified here formed discrete areas that facilitated analysis and action. Results from interviews and focus groups have been conflated in this section of the article for two reasons. First, it eliminated unnecessary repetition. Similar themes emerged from both forms of data collection. Second, it helped to maintain respondent confidentiality. Each of the three main themes were addressed in detail.
The need for more communication When the focus groups were asked their overall impressions of communication within the HCO 12 people responded positively. Examples were offered of approachable line managers and an adequate flow of information on key issues. A significant number of people, even when critical, felt that a genuine effort had been made to improve communication within the HCO. However, positive comments about the current situation were in a minority. The majority of people in the focus groups, who came from all levels of the organisation, felt that the HCO’s internal communications required further improvement. Much of this feeling revolved around the need for more communication (Table I). Nor were these perceptions confined to the issue of information being transmitted from managers. Eight of the respondents, across the spectrum of staff groupings, locations and level of managerial responsibility, felt that bottom up communication needed further development within the HCO. The nature of the communication received and transmitted by people also emerged as an issue. Thus, the sub-themes within this category can be said to encompass the following issues. These are issues which managers in other HCOs should perhaps consider: . the need for progress on communicating important issues; . the need for more information on crucial change issues from managers; . the need for more time for interaction between crucial change agents, such as members of the SMT and general managers; . the need for heightened face-to-face interaction between managers and other staff; . the need for an end to communication practices viewed as bullying in nature; . the absence of a formal strategy and a clearly understood process for information dissemination; . problems at the induction stage for new staff; . the need for more upward communication; and . a lack of face-to-face rather than technologically based communication.
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A sample of respondent comments on these issues is as follows: I don’t feel that there is enough engagement on an ongoing basis. Not enough time is spent by SMT even with general managers to get beyond the day-to-day operational basics. I haven’t sat down with my immediate reports and said that this is what I need for the forthcoming year, this is how I want you to perform, and these are the key things that I need from you and on which you will be evaluated. Suggestions More face-to-face communication, particularly meetings More communication/openness Greater consultation/listening Improve voicemail/e-mail/post More appreciation Improve newsletter Training, especially for communication
Number of respondents 47 29 23 13 8 7 6
Table I. Suggestions to improve communications
There is a lack of communication. We don’t know what’s going on. We hear things on the grapevine rather than from supervisory staff. Communication is not good. Sometimes there is no communication on very major things. Major decisions are made without consultation. I don’t blame senior managers. They are under pressure from the department to do various things, sometimes far too quickly. But for example new appointments were being rapidly organised in Nenagh and no one was asked for their opinion about it. This sort of thing does not engender trust. When money is allocated to the hospital we read about it in the paper rather than hearing about what is going on from management. Communication is quite good given the size of the organisation. But it is haphazard. We rely a lot on informal communication. There is no formal strategy for communication, no policy document or anything else. This could set out a process for everybody. This would assign and clarify roles relating to communication. It would help with understanding and clarify for people what the role of GMs etc. is.
The workload of senior managers This issue of the workload of senior managers was raised predominantly by middle managers, but also by those at lower levels in the organization. Many people expressed an awareness of how hard senior managers worked. The positive side of this was a recognition of, and appreciation for, the intense commitment this represented. The negative side was that several people at low and medium levels in the organization made it clear that they would be incapable of such commitment, and therefore had no wish to develop a management career. Arguably, it was also a further development of the previous theme – the delegation of decision making. There was a widely held perception within the HCO that people further down the hierarchy either could not or would not make sufficient operational decisions. Linked to this, senior managers frequently felt embroiled in operational details rather than strategic thinking. Thus, managers themselves felt frequently dissatisfied by the results of their activity, but exhausted by the effort required. The main sub-themes that emerge there were: . the hours middle and senior managers now work; . the extent to which this is innately bound up with excessive attention to operational issues; . the ability of the organisation to break free from this cycle, while senior managers work so hard; and . the wider symbolic effects of this, in communicating whether people are genuinely empowered to make operational decisions. Sample comments are given below: I reckon I work about 80 hours a week and General Managers work 55 to 60 hours a week. Sometimes if I get home early I think [expletive deleted], what am I doing here when I should be at work. We’re all so busy, but we’re all chasing our tails. I work 50-60 hours a week on the job. A lot of the time is non-profitably spent. Many issues are referred up to me that shouldn’t be. I think the senior management team is very male dominated and macho. They’re all men of a certain age. Maybe the work culture is part of a macho image? I think all the GMs are male
too. The workload of top managers from general managers up is much too heavy. I wouldn’t want an SMT job or a general manager job at all. I know many people feel the same.
Clearly the workload of senior management links crucially with the delegation of decision making, and also the need for more communication. The senior managers consistently worked hard, but the extent to which they worked hard because they did not delegate is difficult to disentangle. The culture at the top of the organization was that working hard was the norm, and it could be the case that as communication improved within the organization senior management continued to work equally as hard but in a more productive manner. Conclusion This article has reported the results of a communication audit in a large HCO in Europe, using both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. This has enabled us to develop a rich understanding of the communication problems encountered by a HCO, which need to be overcome by management and which may be indicative of potential communications issues and problems in organizations other than the one surveyed. We discuss the main findings here in relation to our original research questions. Two key themes consistently emerged from the transcripts of the focus groups and the interviews: a need for more communication, and problems related to senior management workloads. RQ1. Is communication functioning at an optimum level in the HCO, or is there a gap between practice and what is needed? Major communication problems were identified, covering most aspects of the communication process. Individually and cumulatively the effects of these communication problems were to hinder and preclude the involvement of employees and managers in implementing the strategic goals of the HCO. Most of those interviewed and participants in the focus groups, at most levels of the organization, stressed the need for more communication – particularly relating to crucial change issues, and also for a better flow of information from the bottom to the top of the organization structure. People offered plentiful suggestions about how such needs could be facilitated. The data in this article do not disclose a hopelessly unrealistic wish list. Rather, it is striking how many of the suggestions made were low-tech and even simplistic in nature. Other researchers have pointed out that effective internal communications systems are frequently characterised by precisely such simplicity (Arnott, 1987). However, it needs to be noted that improving communications requires time and money. Such resources are finite, and in the scenario where resource constraints are binding this requires organizations to make choices, and also to forgo changes in communication because of lack of money resources and/or time constraints upon senior management. Thus, it would appear that a management team that wants to improve the communication climate within its organisation could readily embark on basic measures that these data suggest are likely to find a ready response from their staff. Clearly, the data reveal a communication problem – the practices of the organisation were revealed to be inconsistent with either the wishes of most people who worked there, or the fundamentals of good practice.
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Many possible explanations could be deuced from the data. Here, we would highlight the following: A reluctance on the part of managers to, in practice, devote the time clearly required to build effective communication systems. It may well be a case that a key factor in the communication problem is that managers are often prepared to do anything humanly possible to improve communication – except devote time, money and effort to the task! At bottom, it appears that managers often assume that intention is equal to implementation. Difficulties above all with creating systems for upward communication. It could be postulated that the more inadequate such systems are the more likely it is that senior managers will become out of touch with the internal communication climate. This becomes a source of a communication problem, in that low awareness precludes accurate diagnosis and the crafting of effective action plans. The remainder of our research questions also obliquely address these themes. RQ2. What is the perception of the workload of the senior level of management by other levels of the organisation, and what is the impact on communication climate. The results show that there was an excessive workload by the senior management team and that this was widely recognised by the team itself, the managers below them, and by non-managerial staff in the HCO. The data suggest that the excessive workload reduced the ability of managers to do their jobs properly, and more specifically to effectively communicate with those further down the organization. Other researchers have noted that the intense demands now made of managers are turning many into what have been called “reluctant managers” (Scase and Goffee, 1989). In this context, the incredible workload of senior managers had a number of deleterious effects. It put people off aspiring to senior management careers, it meant that senior managers remained locked into excessive operational responsibilities, and were bogged down in minutia rather than engaging in strategic thinking. It facilitated a perception that they were unwilling to “let go”, and preferred to be over-informed of relatively small scale organisational problems. It restricted delegation and empowerment and meant that the managers had no time to reflect critically on their practice, and new initiatives designed to improve communication were swept aside, since the SMT was already so busy it could not tolerate the thought of more “pressure”. The paradox is striking. Managers worked incredibly hard, but under-communicated, and with diminishing effectiveness. Yet the more they worked the less likely they were to successfully delegate, and to review their current practice. Finally, this article has indicated that although communication problems may often appear complex the solutions are frequently simple – greater clarity in communication, rather than increasing the frequency of communication. This begs the question of why they appear so elusive, and in many organisations are never even. More research into why this should occur in communication terms is clearly required. Tentatively, we would suggest that the data in this article point in at least some key directions: first, senior managers who over-work are even less likely to have the time for reflection, followed by behaviour change. Second, the absence of adequate upward communication may blind managers to the full nature of their problems, which in turn guides the search for solutions. In any event, our data suggest that attempting to cover
up communication weaknesses by managers working even longer hours (to manage problems that in many instances arise from weak communication systems) only has the effect of further disempowering people, and so accentuating rather than alleviating the underlying difficulty. It is a temptation, however, to which many senior managers are evidently prone.
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References Arnott, M. (1987), “Effective employee communication”, in Hart, N. (Ed.), Effective Corporate Relations, McGraw-Hill, London. Bowen, D.E. and Lawler, E.E. (1992), “The empowerment of service workers: what, why, how and when?”, Sloan Management Review, Spring, pp. 31-9. Clampitt, P. (2000), “The questionnaire approach”, in Hargie, O. and Tourish, D. (Eds), Handbook of Communication Audits for Organizations, Routledge, London. Clampitt, P. and Downs, C. (1993), “Employee perceptions of the relationship between communication and productivity: a field study”, Journal of Business Communication, Vol. 30, pp. 5-28. Crampton, S., Hodge, J. and Mishra, J. (1998), “The informal communication network: factors influencing grapevine activity”, Public Personnel Management, Vol. 27, pp. 569-84. Hanson, G. (1986), “Determinants of firm performance: an integration of economic and organizational factors”, unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan Business School, Dearborn, MI. Hargie, O. and Tourish, D. (Eds) (2000), Handbook of Communication Audits for Organizations, Routledge, London. Hargie, O., Tourish, D. and Wilson, N. (2002), “Increased information: communication metamyth or vehicle for reducing uncertainty? Results from a longitudinal audit study”, Journal of Business Communication, Vol. 39, pp. 414-36. Kanter, R. (1988), “Three tiers for innovation research”, Communication Research, Vol. 15, pp. 509-23. Lee, T. (1999), Using Qualitative Methods in Organizational Research, Sage, London. Myers, D. (1996), Social Psychology, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY. Quirke, B. (1996), Communicating Corporate Change, McGraw-Hill, London. Scase, R. and Goffee, R. (1989), Reluctant Managers: Their Work and Lifestyles, Unwin Hyman, London. Tourish, D. (1998), “‘The god that failed’: replacing visionary leadership with open communication”, Australian Journal of Communications, Vol. 25, pp. 99-114. Tourish, D. and Hargie, O. (1998), “Communication between managers and staff in the NHS: trends and prospects”, British Journal of Management, Vol. 9, pp. 53-71.
Further reading Campbell, M. (1982), “The business communications audit: evaluating and improving business communications”, Montana Business Quarterly, Vol. 20, pp. 15-18. Emmanuel, M. (1985), “Auditing communication practices”, in Reuss, C. and DiSilvas, R. (Eds), Inside Organisational Communication, 2nd ed., Longman, New York, NY. Hurst, B. (1991), The Handbook of Communication Skills, Kogan Page, London. Kopec, J. (1982), “The communication audit”, Public Relations Journal, Vol. 39, pp. 24-7.
Lauer, L. (1996), “Are you using the power of assessments and audits?”, Nonprofit World, Vol. 14, pp. 43-7. Odiorne, G. (1954), “An application of the communications audit”, Personnel Psychology, Vol. 7, pp. 235-43. Stanton, M. (1981), “How to audit communications”, Management Today, November, pp. 69-73. Stone, B. (1995), “Strategic marketing and communications audits”, Marketing Health Services, Vol. 15, pp. 54-6. Strenski, J. (1984), “The communications audit: primary PR measurement tool”, Public Relations Quarterly, Winter, pp. 17-18. Sutherland, S. (1992), Irrationality, Constable, London.